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Who Are the Hebrews?

Who Are the Hebrews?

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The first person to be called a Hebrew was Abraham,1 and the name commonly refers to his descendants, known as the Jewish people. The word for Hebrew used in the Bible is עברי (pronounced "Ivri"), meaning "of or pertaining to עבר-ever." So what does "ever" mean?

The Midrash2 quotes three opinions as to where this name comes from:

  1. Rabbi Yehuda taught that the word "ever" means "opposite side." Abraham believed in one G‑d, and the rest of the world worshipped man-made gods. Thus, "Abraham stood on one side, and the entire world stood on the other side."
  2. Rabbi Nechemiah opined that it is a reference to Ever, great-great-grandson of Noah (usually Anglicized as "Eber"), ancestor of Abraham. Eber was one of the bearers of the monotheistic tradition which he had learned from his ancestors Shem and Noah and passed on to his grandson Abraham. Since Abraham was a descendant and disciple of his, he is called an Ivri.
  3. The rabbis held that the word is a reference to the fact that Abraham came from the other side of the river and was not a native Canaanite. "Ivri" also refers to the fact that Abraham spoke the Hebrew language—thus named because of its ancient origins, preceding the development of the other languages current at that time.3

So Hebrew means the one who is opposed, on the other side, and different from all others. Abraham was a solitary believer in a sea of idolatry.

Perhaps this is why the second person to be called a Hebrew is Joseph.4 A nice Hebrew boy ends up in Egypt, the decadent land of the Pharaohs, where people and the celestial spheres are worshipped instead of G‑d; a lone teenager with outlandish Hebrew beliefs from the far side, in the strongest society of his day. Joseph did not cave in to the pressures. He stood firm in the faith of his ancestors and ultimately rose to the top of Egyptian society, until he was second to Pharaoh himself. In fact, it was after the wife of Potiphar had tried to tempt him into sinning, and he withstood the temptations, that he is first referred to as an Ivri—for then he showed that he was a faithful bearer of the contrary tradition of Adam, Noah, Shem, Eber, and Abraham.

So who are the Hebrews today?

The Jewish people, who after over 3,000 years still cling to their peculiar beliefs and are not swayed by the passing fancies of pop culture, are the same contrary people as their ancestors—the Hebrews of old.

FOOTNOTES
1. Genesis 14:13.
2. Bereishit Rabbah 42:8,
3. While the other languages developed after the dispersion which followed the building of the Tower of Babel, Hebrew preceded them all. Perhaps it is etymologically related to the word עבר-past, since it is a language from the past.
4. Genesis 39:14.
Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org. He lives with his family in Montreal, QC.
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Discussion (31)
May 5, 2014
Unfortunately even religion and god himself today falls in the realm of politics. So, when one wants to tell the truth about what transpired then, it has to make it function of now. Thus, the explanations become ambiguous and nebulous at best. I suggest reading the old bible for some commonalities and extracting dates of historical events to establish chronology of sequences of events. Bible is a collection of wonderful books with satisfying and uplifting words that stretches the wings of love to man kinds.
Manny
April 11, 2013
Everyone is an Expert
I get upset to be told what I should be calling myself. Now we allow people of color to say what is politically correct for this time, and accept it, so we don't say mulatto anymore or colored or even Afro-American if not desiring that.
I am Jewish. I have to have some so-called Christians(not really or they'd not be arguing rather than evangelizing) that I must be called Hebrew. I know American Jews and Israeli Jews, Hebrew being the National Language of Israel. That is my choice so can't understand why many I come across are so anti-semitic, not even knowing what that word means either. I look things up, and have done many years of Bible Study. The Bible was written 2,000 years ago. There are some different interpretations today so that's why it's called in many cases the Living Bible. We have heritages from way way back we inherited, and have desires to be referred to in Today's World. Too many say Palestine, and act like there is no Israel. I was given Golda for a Hebrew name.
Gwenne
California
January 28, 2013
Modern Day Israel vs. Neolithic Jericho?
Is modern day Israel far worse then the neolithic Jericho?

People tell me the only place on earth not to travel to is Israel, that it is the worse place ever. I compared the bible stories to all I could learn about Israel, and I am in shock at what I learned. And who's to say that it isn't a made up g-d by Abraham. Just like the god of fertility of Babylon? That's why Hagar the wife of Abraham had them thrown out of their camp.
Thomas White
Canada
December 20, 2012
The word "Jew" (in Hebrew, "Yehudi") is derived from the name Judah, which was the name of one of Jacob's twelve sons. Judah was the ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel, which was named after him. Likewise, the word Judaism literally means "Judah-ism," that is, the religion of the Yehudim. Other sources, however, say that the word "Yehudim" means "People of G-d," because the first three letters of "Yehudah" are the same as the first three letters of G-d's four-letter name.
andre johnson
detroit
December 4, 2012
To Anon in San Diego
There is a big world out there other than USA. In many languages the Jews are still referred to as Hebrew until this very day. For example, Russian. And there are others. The names Hebrew, Jew and Israelite are all currently used to refer to the same nation.
Abraham McCord
North London
December 4, 2012
(Ok.....this part I get), "The first person to be called a Hebrew was Abraham and the name commonly refers to his descendants (Ok I know this much), known as the Jewish people (where does it say this anywhere?)
Anonymous
San Diego
October 10, 2012
"Hebrew"
Hebrew/Jew, there are no historical facts that they ever existed...this is all biblical stories. Research "Rashi" and "Habiru".
Anonymous
Lithonia, Goergia
April 30, 2012
re He Brew above
I was recently put in touch with a book independently published, called The Secret Language of Birds and it's about what I write about and perceive about the splits one can make in words, across languages, and also the aural connectivity. The author points out the significance of "Haran" as in our Abraham story, and that Haran and Heron are aurally close. He then took a leap across the world and showed the mystic significance of the bird, the heron, in other cultures. This kind of jump seems like a major leap, and for some, not valid, but I am seeing it IS valid or I would not be "getting this" in spades, as words fly to me in the night and by day, and do deconstruct showing me their many-hued feathers. It could be said, the big Jew Wish on these pages is for a Messianic change to sweep through and change our lives, in good and healing ways.

How can we do this so constantly with words, and we all do? Perhaps it's truly speaking the Secret Language of Birds and G-d IS in the wings.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
April 28, 2012
IVRI
I found my Great Grandfather on the Ellis Ilsand search, he had his Name and then Russian Hebrew as tthnicity followed by ivri.

This is the first time I saw this word ivri on any Ellis Island Searches

Was ivri used as a special designation as well, after names?
zena ezechiels
Toronto , Ontario
March 11, 2012
Eve Writ
Just a sudden echo of Ivrit. I believe our souls go back to the Garden and this heady 'brew' meaning beautiful Hebrew is deeply a sacred tongue and it does build and has reverbs in many world languages.

I am seeing these aural connects are truly beautiful and others may not see them. Also look closely at the letters also in how they are made for symbolic content. Aleph: a giagonal with points above and below. What is above as below with echoic connect to the notion also of yin/yang. There is just a world that opens in connectivity with Aleph. It is all beautiful.
ruth housman
marshfield, ma
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